Beneath the surface of Russia’s ever-changing autocratic regimes has always been suppressed but vibrant conversations in samizdat, private media in the form of homemade newsletters and clandestine literature. In the era of Putin and the Ukraine war, discussion among dissenters and dissidents is facilitated by end-to-end encrypted technologies such as Signal, Telegram, and WhatsApp. In a recent article in The New York Times, Aaron Krolik, Paul Mozur, and Adam Satariano call attention to Russia’s successful infiltration of these platforms to effectively eliminate dissent.
This trend promises devastating consequences for Russian dissidents and danger for the world.
The Russian government has managed to crack these once-secure channels, leveraging them to map networks of relationships and surveil its citizens. This alarming development is transforming Russia into a full-blown surveillance state like China’s, where private conversations are no longer secure and individuals risk persecution for expressing dissenting views.
Even more concerning is the certainty that new surveillance technologies and techniques will be easily exported to unfriendly countries and illicit groups around the world, much like Israeli-made Pegasus has been. The ability of Pegasus to infiltrate mobile devices and monitor individuals has been employed by various governments and threat actors worldwide, undermining privacy and individual freedoms.
New Russian spyware provides a similar “Swiss-army knife of spying possibilities,” enabling an unprecedented degree of surveillance and intrusion. One program can identify when people make voice calls or send files on encrypted chat apps such as Telegram, Signal, and WhatsApp. The software can map a person’s relationship network by tracking communications with others. Another product can collect passwords entered on unencrypted websites. Another tool can map the locations of two phones over the course of the day to determine whether they met, indicating a potential meeting between people.
Russia is effectively building a surveillance industrial complex, one which it plans to sell around the world. According to the U.S. State Department, one Russian surveillance company, Citadel, already controls between 60 to 80 percent of the global market for telecommunications monitoring technology.
“The spillover effects will be felt first in the surrounding region, then potentially the world,” says Adrian Shahbaz, Vice-President of research and analysis at the pro-democracy advocacy group Freedom House.
In the hands of a much larger and more sophisticated rival, like China, these tools can be a force for global repression. China has already developed the most robust facial recognition surveillance system in the world, which will integrate voiceprints, faceprints, and DNA samples to weave a comprehensive portrait of the individuals who make up its huge population. China can infiltrate cell phones and sweep up location data from many phones in a wide area. It is even developing the ability to observe brainwaves to detect what illegal activities residents might be up to. Technologies such as these are not likely to remain contained just to China or Russia.
Pegasus shows how such technology can be used to menacing effect. Pegasus was deployed against 26 Mexican journalists in 2016 and 2017. At least one was assassinated. Saudi Arabia successfully installed Pegasus on the phone of the wife of murdered dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Pegasus has even been found on the phones of several U.S. policymakers and in the office of the British Prime Minister.
You may not be worried that the Russian government has its eyes on you, but these capabilities will be sold to unfriendly forces around the world. A cartel could use these technologies to target Americans. An unscrupulous corporation could use them to develop an even more intricate and suggestive profile of potential customers. A government, perhaps our own, could use them to counter freedom of speech.
This is all the more reason for Americans to protect personal encryption from U.S. government pressure to provide backdoor access, while urging private sector champions to stay in the race with the tyrants.